The latest film from Train to Busan director Yeon Sang-ho, Jung_E, is now streaming, but should you give it a watch?
After the one-two punch of Squid Game and All of Us Are Dead exploded on to Netflix in late 2021/early 2022, it was clear that global audiences wanted more Korean content than ever before. According to a press release this week from Netflix about their 2023 K-Content, they claim that 60% of all members watched Korean titles last year.
In that same release, they showcased 34 upcoming titles this year in the biggest lineup of Korean films and series they’ve ever had.
Of those 34 titles, Netflix will be expanding its previous film offerings with six Korean movies, kicking off with the new sci-fi thriller, JUNG_E, from Train To Busan & Peninsula director Yeon Sang-ho.
The film portrays a desolate Earth in the 22nd century that is no longer inhabitable due to climate change. Amid the chaos, an internal war breaks out in the shelter built for human survival. Victory – meaning the war’s end – now hinges on finding a way to clone the legendary mercenary JUNG_E into a scalable robot.
With this story, writer/director Yeon Sang-ho attempts to portray a unique theme combined with dystopia, cloning, and technology. “I wanted to produce an action film that raises questions about artificial intelligence and that viewers can relate to at the same time”, he said in a behind-the-scenes Making Of video for the film, “I hope it will be a film that makes viewers think about whether humanity only belongs to humans.”
Coming off his successful Netflix series creation Hellbound in late 2021, Yeon Sang-ho enlisted two of his Hellbound stars, Kim Hyun-joo (Jung_E) & Ryu Kyung-soo (Sang-Hoon), to lead the small ensemble alongside Park So-yi as young Seohyun and Kang Soo-yeon as the adult team leader version of Seohyun.
Tragically, Kang Soo-yeon died unexpectedly back in May after collapsing from a cerebral hemorrhage.
While Yeon Sang-ho has created successful films & series in the past, his success was largely in fantastical & frenetic constructions that allow him to flex his strongest muscle of stunt work & action set pieces. With this film, he strips a lot of that away in lieu of a toned-down examination of AI & experimentation. He relies on the script & his performances to carry the film more than the spectacle for which he is best known.
However, that is where the film fails him. With his strengths mostly coming in the action that bookends the story, the majority of the film is constructed around the agonizingly slow-paced process of mapping a Combat AI program from the brain of the Team Leader’s legendary merc mother in a lab full of painfully dull or awkwardly unfunny characters.
The director character Sang-Hoon is sometimes unbearable in his over-the-top aggression at his fellow lab employees or his pathetic attempts at humor which happens far too often.
The film attempts to explain his behavior at times but doesn’t help the audience deal with his antics in real-time. I wouldn’t be surprised if many turn off the film in the early going because of his character.
The emotional connection between Team Leader Seohyun and what remains of her mother & her legacy is the only thing that keeps the film together. However, I feel that they should have done a little more to cultivate that relationship in flashbacks or early scenes before we meet Seohyun as an adult to cement what these repetitive tests are doing to Seohyun’s psyche and why she has such strong motives as the film moves towards its conclusion.
Some early reviews of the film have mentioned the production design & VFX as strengths of the film, but I would say they were very inconsistent. The action scenes had solid fight choreography & VFX movement in the robots and the lab itself was well constructed; however, a lot of scenes outside of the lab felt like transitional scenes from modern video games with very little depth or substance to make you feel immersed in this dystopian version of our way of life.
The true strength of the film comes far too late in the form of the last 20 minutes. An escape sequence buoyed by several well-constructed fight scenes & emotional tension between “mother” and daughter are the best this film has to offer.
However, without spoiling the film itself, I do quibble with the impact of the conclusion itself.
Yeon Sang-ho’s statement about making “viewers think about whether humanity only belongs to humans” comes to the forefront as freedom for an AI that barely has the brain mapping of a prior human being is examined in the final scenes. Yeon seems to want to have it both ways, as he allows for an emotional ending with the mother/daughter pairing predicated on memories between them long ago AND giving the AI Robot a fresh start, supposedly after erasing the daughter from her brain. Those two are in direct conflict at a pivotal point in the movie and don’t allow for any philosophical ruminations on the outcome. It is simply just confusing.
Overall, if you can endure the plodding middle act filled with emotionless lab work and poor attempts at humor, then the payoff for the film’s final act might give you enough satisfaction to keep your thirst for quality Netflix K-Content to come intact.
Note Before Watching JUNG_E on Netflix
Do not use the dubbed version of this film.
The voiceover performances are brutally overacted compared to their Korean counterparts. You should watch the film in original Korean with English subtitles. You can thank me later.
Watch JUNG_E If You Like
- Train To Busan
- I Am Mother
MVP of JUNG_E on Netflix
Kang Soo-yeon as Team Leader Seohyun.
As the heart & soul of the movie, Kang Soo-yeon brings depth to a mostly thin storyline. She can do more with a longing look than many of the characters around her. Often called Korea’s first world star, Kang Soon-yeon shows why she was such an acclaimed star in her native country. May she rest in peace.
PLAY, PAUSE, OR STOP?
With some quality action on its edges and enough heart at the core of its central characters, it might be possible to overcome its glaring shortcomings.
Did you watch JUNG_E on Netflix? Let us know what you thought in the comments down below.